Spaghetti westerns dominated the 1960s, and they were led by the iconic Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy. Composed of A handful of dollars, for a few more dollars, and The good the bad and the ugly, the Dollars trilogy changed the face of westerns forever and made Clint Eastwood a star.
But Leone made another western masterpiece – the 1968s Once upon a Time in the West. The film did not make a splash in the United States and was considered a box office disappointment – especially after the fierce success of The good the bad and the ugly. But with time, Once upon a Time in the West grew in stature and is now considered (arguably) the best western ever made.
ten Leone was withdrawing from westerns
Although he is widely known for his westerns, Sergio Leone is withdrawing from the genre. He did whatever he wanted to do with the genre, and he hoped to move on to other materials. His passion project will eventually become Once upon a time in america, a four-hour epic starring Robert De Niro, James Woods and Joe Pesci.
However, it would be decades before that vision materialized (the film would not be released until 1984). Paramount had a lot to convince. Fortunately, they had exactly what it took …
9 Leone made the film because he wanted to work with Henry Fonda
… and that thing was beloved American actor, Henry Fonda. Fonda had long established himself as an American icon, appearing in dozens of beloved films and winning two Oscar nominations for Grapes of Wrath (Best Actor) and 12 angry men (Best Picture, having co-produced the film with Reginald Rose).
Sergio Leone was a huge Fonda fan and had wanted to work with him for a long time, but never got the chance. Paramount offered Leone Fonda and a high budget, and Leone couldn’t say no.
8 Fonda was convinced to make Eli Wallach’s film
Frank is now one of Henry Fonda’s most iconic roles. This is for two main reasons. The first is that the performance is obviously excellent. But the second is that Fonda was widely known for his heroic roles, and Once upon a Time in the West overturned that idea by making him the bad guy.
Despite Leone’s enthusiasm, Fonda was reluctant to take on the role. It was only after consulting Eli Wallach (who played Tuco in The good the bad and the ugly) which Fonda accepted, because Wallach had sung Leone’s praises.
7 The harmonica was originally offered to Clint Eastwood
Despite the newfound maturity and the dark tone, Once upon a Time in the West was a Sergio Leone western, and fans were waiting for Clint Eastwood. What they got instead was Charles Bronson. Eastwood had worked with Leone for years, starring as The Man with No Name in his iconic Dollars trilogy.
Leone had offered the role of Harmonica to Eastwood, but Eastwood turned it down, wishing to avoid being categorized as “the silent Western type”.
6 Henry Fonda wanted Frank to look different
Perhaps to distance himself from the villainous role of Frank, or perhaps to help viewers disassociate âHenry Fondaâ from Frank, Fonda tried to have a different look. On her first day on set, Fonda appeared with a beard and brown contact lenses.
Leone was furious, because he wanted the almost mythical “Henry Fonda” and to deliver the 1960s audiences the shock of seeing Fonda as a villain. He forced Fonda to shave and remove the contacts, so Frank appears in the film clean-shaven and with Fonda’s signature blue eyes.
5 Actor Mickey Knox helped write the dialogue
Leone fans Dollars the trilogy will likely take note of the dialogue found in Once upon a Time in the West. While these three films were peppered with unpretentious and borderline comedic dialogue, Once upon a Time in the West was much more poetic, offering beautiful lines of dialogue with undercurrents of metaphor and mythical grandeur.
That’s because actor Mickey Knox served as the film’s English translator / adapter and helped Leone write some of the film’s most iconic and poetic lines of dialogue.
4 Most of the film was shot in Spain
It’s amazing how much Spain spends about the American West. Like many of Leone’s older westerns, much of Once upon a Time in the West was shot all over Spain. These sequences include the opening station shooting, scenes involving Flagstone and Sweetwater Ranch.
Exceptions include all interior shots (which were shot on a soundstage in Rome) and scenes set in Monument Valley.
3 The score was finished before the film
In a weird and unconventional reversal from the norm, Ennio Morricone’s iconic score was actually completed before the film itself. Typically, music is recorded in post-production, with the composer working directly with the finished footage.
In this case, the music was the first thing completed. This is because Leone wanted to play the music during the shoot in the hopes of an inspiring performance, mood and atmosphere.
2 Leone consulted many classic westerns
Leone’s intention with Once upon a Time in the West was to overthrow the Western genre and overthrow most of its tropes. To conduct research, Leone and its creator consulted dozens of “classic” Western films, and the film contains many overt references.
For example, McBain’s funeral is taken straight from the 1953 classic, Shane. McBain Farm ending and massacre mirror those of John Wayne Researchers. Cheyenne’s auction scene and dust collectors were supposed to be the benchmark The man who shot Liberty Valance. These are just a few of the dozens of references.
1 One of the three cowboys ended his life in a costume
Unfortunately, the manufacture of Once upon a Time in the West comes with a tragic story. Actor Al Mulock stars in the film’s opening sequence at the Station, playing one of Frank’s hitman. Shortly after filming his scenes, Mulock jumped out of his hotel window dressed in his cowboy costume. He survived the fall itself but died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The reasons for committing suicide are unknown. However, Mickey Knox (the English script translator) claimed in his book, The good, the bad and the Dolce Vita, that Mulock was a heavy drug user and was unable to acquire drugs while filming in Spain, resulting in his death by suicide out of desperation and torment.
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